High School Sports

Fort Worth Dunbar carries rich tradition into higher classification

Fort Worth Dunbar boys basketball coach Robert Hughes Jr. is fine with the school opting up, meaning they’ll play again for the next two years in the state’s second-biggest classification.

But it’s not what he wants. His sights are higher.

“We really want to be 6A,” Hughes said. “That’s what our goal is, to be 6A. We always think we’re supposed to be at the top classification. Ever since I’ve been here, ever since we’ve been coaching here. We go up out here.”

That’s why when the UIL announces its 2014-16 realignment at 9 a.m. Monday, there will be at least one “automatic thing,” as Hughes puts it: Dunbar, with more than 200 students below the cutoff, will be in the Class 5A, which was formerly 4A.

The UIL is renaming the classes this year, bumping each one up a number after changing Six-Man to 1A. So 5A, as 4A currently is, will be the second-biggest class in the state.

Dunbar’s enrollment was reported in December as 828.5. The new 5A includes schools with enrollments of 1,060 to 2,099 students. Under UIL policy, school districts can choose to have a school opt up one class.

“Between leadership at the school and central administration and tradition of playing at that level, and obviously at that realignment, it seems to be a good fit,” athletic director Kevin Greene said. “That’s kind of what they’re accustomed to.”

Meanwhile, Fort Worth Diamond Hill-Jarvis, with an enrollment of 950, will stay in 4A (formerly 3A). Greene said the decision to move Dunbar and not Jarvis was a collaborative one.

Nothing new

Opting up isn’t a new concept at Dunbar.

The school played up for the 2012-14 realignment, reporting an enrollment in 2012 of 786.5.

That was third smallest among 4A schools playing both football and basketball. In the 1990s, Dunbar also played in Class 5A when it had 4A enrollment numbers.

“We always play up here,” Hughes said. “It’s just straight bravado. We belong in the big class. Winning a [4A] state championship, we wouldn’t feel the same gratification.”

The boys basketball team has proven it can play at a top level. The Wildcats are ranked No. 2 in the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches 4A state poll. This season, they’ve beaten 5A opponents Arlington Martin, Mansfield Timberview and Temple. And they led Class 5A No. 2 DeSoto in the second half before falling in their season opener.

Greene, who said he hasn’t heard any opposition to Dunbar playing up a class, was quick to point out the success of the football team.

The Wildcats went undefeated in the 2013 regular season, winning a District 6-4A title.

They beat schools such as Birdville and Saginaw — both with more than twice Dunbar’s enrollment — before falling in the first round of the playoffs to Wichita Falls.

But Dunbar was fortunate to avoid injuries, playing with a squad that fielded only 27 players, coach Todd Lawson said. Saginaw and Saginaw Boswell had more than 60 players. Birdville played with 45.

“The numbers were a big concern for us,” Lawson said. “You just kind of look at it and hope your prayers are answered. Injuries would’ve decimated the season.”

The decision to opt up was out of Lawson’s hands, he said.

“Really, you know, we just have to play it,” Lawson said. “That’s the only way I have to look at it. It’s being made in the athletics office. I just have to do what I can to prepare us in the best way. It’s just coming from downtown. It’s just something that they come up with together with their collective minds.”

Pride in playing up

As Greene said, history and tradition play as big of a factor as anything in keeping Dunbar in its class.

“We’ve always had little numbers over here,” Hughes said. “The thing is to us, numbers don’t mean anything. There are several schools that have 2,000 or 3,000 students or more and can’t play Tiddlywinks.”

The UIL has no problem with Dunbar electing to opt up. It’s a decision made entirely by individual school districts, said Mark Cousins, the UIL athletic director.

If Dunbar stayed down, there would have been 10 Class 5A FWISD schools, leaving the possibility for a 10-team, FWISD-only district. That was the case in 1998, 2000, 2002, 2008 and 2010. There was an 11-team FWISD district in 2006. The FWISD 4A schools split into two districts in 2004 and 2012, placing them with schools such as Birdville and powerhouse Aledo.

Disparity between numbers and, sometimes, talent in UIL districts is often unavoidable, Cousins said.

“I think [disparity] is something that can be an issue regardless of whether a school opts up or not,” Cousins said. “And ultimately, how you can look at competition can vary depending on what sport.”

Creating a ‘mecca’

Hughes envisions Dunbar returning to prominence, both athletically and academically. And he wants that to happen in the highest class possible.

“We’re working diligently to get everybody on the east side to stay home,” Hughes said. “This is what we’re trying to do: our goal is to be the academic and athletic mecca of Fort Worth.”

For Hughes, it’s not a matter of if, but when that will happen.

“You’ve got some real Wildcats and you got some fake ones out there, but a real Wildcat can do and be successful in anything they want to do,” he said. “We’re going to be 6A and we’re going to be champions again.”